ICLEI President Cownie on the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead

The way Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie sees it, cities and towns should “always have a seat at the table” in the multi-level dialogue surrounding climate change. As mayor of a midwestern American city since 2004, this has been a long-held priority for Cownie – and now as the newly-elected president of ICLEI, it moves to a bigger stage.

Many people view COP21 in Paris as the turning point for recognizing local governments and municipal authorities (LGMA’s) and groups like ICLEI. In a recent interview with CityTalk, Cownie stated, “we started our work in 2009, six years before, to get heads of state to understand the importance of… multilevel action (and) all of us working together,” towards fighting global warming.

Fast forward 12 years and it’s fitting that last month, a week after Cownie formally took over as ICLEI President, that the U.S. hosted the Leaders Summit on Climate emphasizing the importance of support for action at every level, including advancing subnational engagement abroad and catalyzing subnational participation in COP26, which takes place later this year in Glasgow.

Pointing to the stark contrast between the new administration under Biden, which Cownie says has “very aggressive goals” (most notably, reducing U.S. carbon emissions 50-52 percent by 2030) and the previous administration “which was totally absent over the last four years”, one of Cownie’s greatest hopes in the months to come is “we’re going to lead by example here in the United States with our efforts.”

But his optimism is tempered by a sense that we have no time to waste. “ICLEI has been helping cities and counties, not only in this country but around the world, to develop climate action and adaptation plans… but I’ve got to tell you, we can’t wait. We’ve got to get going,” in terms of moving from planning to implementing solutions.

One of Cownie’s top priorities from an action and implementation standpoint is transitioning the energy sector from carbon-based to renewable energy sources. And in the U.S., Cownie says Houston has the potential to be the country’s poster child for the kind of transformative change he envisions. “Houston has been one of the leaders in energy production… for decades, but of course it was all oil. So we’ve got to wean [them] off that addiction and help them transition. They’ve got to figure out how to produce renewable energy to save jobs, save lives and save the future of this planet.”

Cownie says ICLEI USA’s ClearPath program is one top-of-mind example of an initiative that can guide the efforts of cities such as Houston towards a more sustainable future. The software platform provides a step by step process to help jurisdictions dramatically reduce carbon emissions and can play a pivotal role in transitioning from grey to green. “I think we’re in a unique position with all of the work we’re doing [with ClearPath]… and all of the ideas that are coming out around renewable energy sources,” he says, to not only support U.S. city and county efforts to embrace a greener future but also “to pass those best practices on globally.”

Joining President Cownie in the CityTalk interview, ICLEI USA Executive Director Angie Fyfe says that thanks to the efforts of ICLEI and its global partners, the appropriately named ClearPath initiative enables cities to identify “what level of emission reduction is required by 2030 in order to meet their carbon neutrality goals by 2050 or sooner.” She says ICLEI has always helped communities to measure their greenhouse gas emissions, set targets and put mitigation strategies in place. “But we’ve never before had a method that allows us to tell (cities) precisely what their targets should be.”

Thanks to this new sense of clarity surrounding the ability to set carefully measured, attainable carbon reduction goals, ICLEI USA now has 500 jurisdictions using the software platform, which could serve as a catalyst for ICLEI150, which has a target of getting 150 local governments across the ICLEI USA network to join the Race to Zero campaign to cut global emissions in half by 2030 and to zero by 2050.

Fyfe says her team felt getting 150 of 500 ICLEI USA members on board would be an aggressive, yet achievable number to aim for. Setting the wheels in motion to reach this goal in late May she says, “we put out 27 invitations to our early adopters for our launch… and we had 21 of the 27 elected officials immediately sign up.” This month “we’ll put out 87 invitations to our next round of leaders” with the hope that another 60 communities will sign on, at which point they’ll be past the halfway mark of achieving their 150 city target.

Consistent with his ‘lead by example’ mindset, Cownie hopes that U.S. driven initiatives such as ClearPath and ICLEI150 create a ripple effect, inspiring other cities, many of which are Members of ICLEI or other organizations such as the Global Covenant of Mayors to establish their own, local NDC targets.

However Cownie is also cognizant of the additional challenges cities in developing countries face, many of which “don’t have adequate infrastructure… or the funding in place” that’s needed to achieve aggressive sustainability goals. “And COVID has certainly heightened the inequities between regions.”

Based on previous exchanges Cownie has had with his ICLEI peers, he says “I find the offices in Africa and Asia have to be more innovative than perhaps we have to be in the United States because of our resources.” Turning to nature-based solutions for instance, when capital or technology resources are lacking… an approach that Cownie says “we can learn from as well.”

Using nature to forge more resilient communities is yet another priority for Cownie, which shouldn’t come as a surprise in light of some of the environmental disasters his hometown has gone through in recent years. Just last year, Des Moines was battered with 193 km (120 mile) winds, described by meteorologists as derechos, which are essentially straight-line hurricanes that occur in the middle of a continent. Summarizing the damage left in the wake of these winds, Cownie says the derecho caused widespread “devastation to our buildings… we lost thousands of trees… strewn all over our city… and a quarter of a million people were without power for a week.”

It was a particularly cruel disaster for Des Moines, which has been a proud member of Tree City USA for nearly three decades. “We are constantly planting more trees to intensify and improve our urban forest,” notes Cownie in recognition of the fact that “trees of course are one of our greatest mitigators – capturing carbon and controlling soil erosion.”

Further to Cownie’s comments on how essential it is for cities to have healthy, thriving urban forests, Fyfe said that ICLEI USA’s LEARN (Land Emissions and Removals Navigator) software is proving to be a valuable tool in support of these efforts. She says LEARN estimates local greenhouse gas mitigation potential of trees and “we’re using it to help cities to understand their current state of biodiversity and to see how they can improve it.”

Often it is the most disadvantaged that suffer from living in areas where there is a shortage of trees and green space… a reality not lost on Cownie, who also wants to ensure that equity remains a priority for ICLEI Members moving forward. “It’s all of us working together. We’re on the ground every single day in our (respective) locales to meet the needs of our citizens… and make them feel we’re doing our best to preserve a future for everybody. Whether it’s the creation of new jobs, affordable housing, or the benefits of natural capital… we need to bring everybody forward, and not just the rich people… so that everybody sees the benefit of the work that we’re doing.”

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